Abbas aide: Extension of Mideast talks unlikely

KARIN LAUB Associated Press Published:

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Gaps between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators only have widened in seven months and an extension of talks appears unlikely after what is bound to be a missed April 29 deadline for a framework deal, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday.

Abbas is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 17 as the U.S. tries to press both sides to agree on a framework, or the ground rules for future negotiations. Obama held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House earlier this week.

The Abbas aide, Mohammed Ishtayeh, on Thursday laid out the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating positions and the expected U.S. proposal for a framework deal.

"What we have seen in the talks is that the gap is growing, rather than narrowing," Ishtayeh told foreign diplomats and representatives of international organizations. Ishtayeh resigned as a negotiator in November to protest accelerated Israeli settlement building.

For the Palestinians, the biggest obstacle is a new demand -- introduced only in this round of negotiations -- that they accept Israel as a Jewish state, Ishtayeh said. The PLO recognized the state of Israel when peace efforts began two decades ago and Abbas has argued this is sufficient.

Abbas cannot "under any circumstances" recognize Israel as a Jewish state because this would restrict the return options of Palestinian refugees and potentially pave the way for a gradual expulsion of Israel's large Arab minority, Ishtayeh said.

Israel argues that such recognition would provide proof that the Palestinians are serious about peace.

Israel's land demands pose another serious obstacle, Ishtayeh said.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, but are ready to accept minor modification to accommodate some of the dozens of settlements Israel has built on occupied lands.

Israel wants to annex these so-called "settlement blocs," but never has presented a detailed border proposal. The Palestinians have calculated that these blocs would translate into about 12 percent of the West Bank, Ishtayeh said. Israel also wants a long-term military presence in the Jordan Valley, which makes up 28 percent of the West Bank, he said.

Israeli officials have declined to discuss the content of the negotiations.

With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry apparently unable to bridge the gaps, there is some expectation that the U.S. will seek an extension of the talks until the end of the year.

Ishtayeh said he believes it would be pointless to do so because there is no common ground. "We don't have terms of reference ... which means we and the Israelis are reading from different books," he said.

An Abbas aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters, suggested the Palestinian leader might agree to an extension with the right enticements. Ideas such a settlement freeze and a release of additional Palestinian prisoners by Israel have been floated. Since late July, Israel has released 78 veteran prisoners in three groups and the fourth is to be freed at the end of March.

However, a full settlement freeze is unlikely since Netanyahu rejected such a demand in the past. A partial freeze would be problematic for Abbas because it would imply he indirectly sanctions some settlement construction.